Opinions, Super Rugby

When young starts becoming old – The proliferation of teens being blooded in Super Rugby

The selection of 19-year-old Salmaan Moerat to the Stormers match day squad for their match against the Highlanders in Dunedin would have elicited much more interest a decade ago than it has now.

The selection of youngsters not yet out of their teens to play Super Rugby is becoming common place. That tells me two things. Firstly, this country does still possess a productive conveyor belt of talented youngsters. Secondly, the flow of experienced professional players to overseas clubs is having an impact.

Time will tell whether Moerat will vindicate coach Robbie Fleck’s adherence to the adage that if you are good enough you are old enough. What I will say though is that judging from what I have seen of him, he will acquit himself in a manner that will make him seem older than his years.

My point is that Moerat is not making the same step up that Naas Botha was when he made his debut as a 19-year-old for Northern Transvaal in 1977. Back then, the prodigiously talented Botha was the lone boy among a sea of men. You can’t say the same about Moerat, for he will be joining quite a few of his contemporaries once he has his Super Rugby cap, assuming of course he gets onto the field at the Forsyth Barr Stadium.

I saw Moerat play at the 2016 Craven Week at Kearsney College, and one of his teammates there was Damian Willemse, who will also be part of the Stormers squad in Dunedin. Willemse is the same age as Moerat but made his Stormers debut 12 months ago. One of the star players in the Stormers team that played against the Crusaders last week was Cobus Wiese, who I would have seen play at Craven Week at Paul Roos in 2015. He made his debut aged 19 this time last year too.

The stand-out at the schools week in 2015 was Curwin Bosch. Playing for Eastern Province, Bosch was the player everyone was talking about. All the talent scouts were after his signature. The Sharks won and he has now played enough rugby for them at Currie Cup and Super Rugby level for some critics to forget his age when assessing his potential.

A former Springbok told me after last year’s Currie Cup final, where Bosch’s lack of appetite for tackling was exposed, that Bosch was finished. I argued against that line on the basis that Bosch is still young and can work on his deficiencies, but I did understand where the former player was going with his argument. Bosch is young but it doesn’t feel like he is a new kid on the block anymore. He does need careful management or questions might in time be asked about whether he was pushed too early.

Robert du Preez, who is wearing the Sharks No10 instead of Bosch, was not pushed too early. There were big question marks over his defensive abilities when he was coming through the Sharks age-groups, so much so that coaches would work out ways to hide him on defence. It is a good thing for Du Preez that he wasn’t exposed then at that age.

Instead he was allowed to work on his defensive weakness, as well as other areas of deficiency, and by the time he did play Super Rugby, he was ready to do so.

It helps when you have good players ahead of you who you can learn off. Bosch wasn’t helped by the injury that forced Patrick Lambie to miss so much rugby when he was at the Sharks. A few seasons of being understudy to an experienced professional might have been good for Bosch.

Moerat is perhaps a bad example to be mentioning in the same breath as the flyhalves in the sense that it was not just one injury that elevated him into the Stormers match day squad, but a series of them. Eben Etzebeth is out, JD Schickerling is out, and Moerat probably wouldn’t have been called upon were it not for the concussion doubt hovering over Pieter-Steph du Toit.

WP Currie Cup winning captain Chris van Zyl and Jan de Klerk are ahead of Moerat too, so what brings him to be playing Super Rugby at just the age of 19 is really a bizarre sequence of injuries in a position where the Cape team does boast considerable depth.

The lack of a band of experienced players who can guide the youngsters and, in the words of Sharks veteran Keegan Daniel, absorb pressure for them, is the biggest concern hovering over the proliferation of youngsters being blooded at Super Rugby level.

It was interesting listening to Daniel during an interview at Kings Park this week. He pointed out that the Sharks team isn’t really such a young team and said that some of the youngsters aren’t really that young. If pressed further on that, Daniel might well make a point I have heard him make before – that it has all become relative. What was considered young when he made his debut in 2006 may not be seen as young now.

The man Moerat effectively replaces in the Stormers squad is a case in point. Schickerling is only 22. Yet it feels like the Stormers have lost the services of an experienced player. Times are changing and so are the perceptions of age. It’s not an entirely good thing

Also read Rich’s view on Rassie’s 6 year contract

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